In Oakland, California, where frustration over police brutality fueled the rise of the Black Panther Party nearly fifty years ago, anger and grief spilled into the streets when a former city transit officer drew an involuntary manslaughter conviction yesterday for gunning down an unarmed black man today as he laid on the ground in compliance with police orders. As Blogher Contributing Editor Melissa Ford reported, the verdict returned by a Los Angeles jury against Johannes Mehserle, 28 in the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III normally carries a sentence of 2-4 years, but could be as long as 15 years because the crime was committed with a gun.
Because the Los Angeles jury failed to convict on the greater charge of second-degree murder, (after the judge took first-degree murder off the table), Grant's family and supporters denounced the verdict as a miscarriage of justice.The trial was held in southern California because of fears that adverse publicity in Oakland would taint the jury pool.
Some critics also judged the media coverage of the trial harshly. KPIX-TV, a CBS affiliate station covering Northern California, broadcast comments from Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, as well as reports on the protests from Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and local police. As reported by the hyperlocal news outlet the Oakland Local (led by BlogHer Contributing Editor Emeritus Susan Mernit in concert with Spot.us and MediaShift's Amy Gahran, peaceful protests at City Hall turned violent after dark, with reports of looting and clashes with police in riot gear. Here is some of their video coverage from the scene:
According to the Los Angeles Times, about 50 people have been arrested. As the San Francisco Chronicle and others reported, the violence is being widely attributed to a racially mixed group of anarchist protestors from outside of the city. The Chronicle also quoted an appeal for calm from Grant's grandfather, also named Oscar Grant, saying in part, "Don't dishonor my grandson's death by tearing up Oakland. I know the verdict was wrong."
Twitter has also remained an active source of news, rumor and debate throughout the night, with complaints that news coverage of Lebron James' announcement that he will play basketball for the Miami Heat next year is outpacing coverage of the Grant verdict. Local radio personality DaveyD's comment was widely re-tweeted:
"Wanna thank Huffington Post for making lebron james [sic] their headline....Glad justice system breaking down was noteworthy...#fail"
Indeed, the widely-anticipated James story was the banner headline on the celebrity-driven Huffpo site as of this writing, with coverage of the Grant verdict and protests teased below the scroll. At Jack and Jill Politics, comedian and social critic Baratunde Thurston dropped this acid quip, "Maybe Grant should have been a better basketball player."
Mehserle faces sentencing August 6. Until then, there will likely be a great deal more analysis and second-guessing of the trial and the press coverage, along with calls for state and federal action investigations of the violations of Grant's civil rights. In the meantime, this should be noted: There would likely be no trial today had it not been for the cell phone video of the shooting. Indeed, one of the most chilling images of the whole case is a grainy image of Mehserle with a weapon drawn, reportedly snapped by Grant's cell phone in the minutes before he died. You can see it in this gallery from the San Jose Mercury News.
This is one difference between the 1960s and now, and it might be the thing that saves Oakland and our democracy, if we take heed. The ability to report official misconduct in real time is now widespread. Another difference: In the 1960s, protesters against police brutality faced off against a city government and police force run mostly by white men. Today, the mayor of Oakland, Ronald Dellums, is a black man who has promised to "stand with" the Grant family in their pursuit of justice. And while there is considerable anger and disillusionment being reported in Oakland in the wake of the verdict, the news reporting has matured enough to recognize to be able to distinguish between the protesters and the rioters.
These are causes for hope, as well as evidence of a clear public journalism mission for media in Oakland and elsewhere. If the news media there can keep a conversation going about how the community can move forward in the wake of these developments, they will have performed a vital public service that reflects traditions of journalism.For the sake of Oakland and the cause of justice, let us hope that they continue to be uo to the task.
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